Humanity may have exhausted the Earth’s low-cost mineral resources before the end of this century – but better resource management can avoid the worst risks. Photograph: Image Source/REX
A new landmark scientific report drawing on the work of the world’s leading mineral experts forecasts that industrial civilisation’s extraction of critical minerals and fossil fuel resources is reaching the limits of economic feasibility, and could lead to a collapse of key infrastructures unless new ways to manage resources are implemented.
The peer-reviewed study – the 33rd Report to the Club of Rome – is authored by Prof Ugo Bardi of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Florence, where he teaches physical chemistry. It includes specialist contributions from fifteen senior scientists and experts across the fields of geology, agriculture, energy, physics, economics, geography, transport, ecology, industrial ecology, and biology, among others.
The Club of Rome is a Swiss-based global think tank founded in 1968 consisting of current and former heads of state, UN bureaucrats, government officials, diplomats, scientists, economists and business leaders.
Its latest report, to be released on 12th June, conducts a comprehensive overview of the history and evolution of mining, and argues that the increasing costs of mineral extraction due to pollution, waste, and depletion of low-cost sources will eventually make the present structure of industrial civilisation unsustainable.
Much of the report’s focus is on the concept of Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI), which measures the amount of energy needed to extract resources. While making clear that “we are not running out of any mineral,” the report finds that “extraction is becoming more and more difficult as the easy ores are depleted. More energy is needed to maintain past production rates, and even more is needed to increase them.” As a consequence, despite large quantities of remaining mineral reserves:
“The production of many mineral commodities appears to be on the verge of decline… we may be going through a century-long cycle that will lead to the disappearance of mining as we know it.”
The last decade has seen the world shift to more expensive and difficult to extract fossil fuel resources, in the form of unconventional forms of oil and gas, which have much lower levels of EROEI than conventional oil. Even with technological breakthroughs in fracking and associated drilling techniques, this trend is unlikely to reverse significantly.
A former senior executive in Australia’s oil, gas and coal industry, Ian Dunlop, describes in the report how fracking can rise production “rapidly to a peak, but it then declines rapidly, too, often by 80 to 95 percent over the first three years.” This means that often “several thousand wells” are needed for a single shale play to provide “a return on investment.”
The average EROEI to run “industrial society as we know it” is about 8 to 10. Shale oil and gas, tar sands, and coal seam gas are all “at, or below, that level if their full costs are accounted for… Thus fracking, in energy terms, will not provide a source on which to develop sustainable global society.”
The Club of Rome report also applies the EROEI analysis to extraction of coal and uranium. World coal production will peak by 2050 latest, and could peak as early as 2020. US coal production has already peaked, and future production will be determined largely by China. But rising domestic demand from the latter, and from India, could generate higher prices and shortages in the near future: “Therefore, there is definitely no scope for substituting for oil and gas with coal.”
As for global uranium supplies, the report says that current uranium production from mines is already insufficient to fuel existing nuclear reactors, a gap being filled by recovery of uranium military stockpiles and old nuclear warheads. While the production gap could be closed at current levels of demand, a worldwide expansion of nuclear power would be unsustainable due to “gigantic investments” needed.
Report contributor Michael Dittmar, a nuclear physicist at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, argues that despite large quantities of uranium in the Earth’s crust, only a “limited numbers of deposits” are “concentrated enough to be profitably mined.” Mining less concentrated deposits would require “far more energy than the mined uranium could ultimately produce.” The rising costs of uranium mining, among other costs, has meant that nuclear power investment is tapering off.
Proposals to extract uranium from seawater are currently “useless” because “the energy needed to extract and process uranium from seawater would be about the same as the energy that could be obtained by the same uranium using the current nuclear technology.” Therefore within this decade, the report forecasts an “unavoidable” production decline from existing uranium mines.
US Geological Survey data analysed by the report shows that chromium, molybdenum, tungsten, nickel, platinum-palladium, copper, zinc, cadmium, titanium, and tin will face peak production followed by declines within this century. This is because declared reserves are often “more hypothetical than measured”, meaning the “assumption of mineral bonanzas… are far removed from reality.”
In particular, the report highlights the fate of copper, lithium, nickel and zinc. Physicist Prof Rui Namorado Rosa projects an “imminent slowdown of copper availability” in the report. Although production has grown exponentially, the grade of the minerals mined is steadily declining, lifting mining costs. ‘Peak copper’ is likely to hit by 2040, but could even occur within the next decade.
Production of lithium production, presently used for batteries electric cars, would also be strained under a large-scale electrification of transport infrastructure and vehicles, according to contributor Emilia Suomalainen, an industrial ecologist of the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. Sustainable lithium production requires 80-100% recycling – currently this stands at less than 1%.
Nickel and zinc, which are used to combat iron and steel corrosion and for electricity storage in batteries, also could face production peaks in just “a few decades” – though nickel might be extended some 80 years – according to engineer and metals specialist Philippe Bihoux:
“The easily exploited part of the reserves has been already removed, and so it will be increasingly difficult and expensive to invest in and exploit nickel and zinc mines.”
While substitution could help in many cases, it would also be costly and uncertain, requiring considerable investment.
Perhaps the most alarming trend in mineral depletion concerns phosphorous, which is critical to fertilise soil and sustain agriculture. While phosphorous reserves are not running out, physical, energy and economic factors mean only a small percentage of it can be mined. Crop yield on 40 percent of the world’s arable land is already limited by economical phosphorus availability.
In the Club of Rome study, physicist Patrick Dery says that several major regions of rock phosphate production – such as the island of Nauru and the US, which is the world’s second largest producer – are post-peak and now declining, with global phosphorous supplies potentially becoming insufficient to meet agricultural demand within 30-40 years. The problem can potentially be solved as phosphorous can be recycled.
A parallel trend documented in the report by Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) agronomist Toufic El Asmar is an accelerating decline in land productivity due to industrial agricultural methods, which are degrading the soil by as much as 50% in some areas.
Prof Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said that the report is “an effective piece of work” to assess the planet’s mineral wealth “within the framework of sustainability.” Its findings offer a “valuable basis for discussions on mineral policy.”
But the window for meaningful policy action is closing rapidly. “The main alarm bell is the trend in the prices of mineral commodities,” Prof Bardi told me.
“Prices have gone up by a factor 3-5 and have remained at these level for the past 5-6 years. They are not going to go down again, because they are caused by irreversible increases in production costs. These prices are already causing the decline of the less efficient economies (say, Italy, Greece, Spain, etc.). We are not at the inversion point yet, but close – less than a decade?”
For part 2 of this story see here.
Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is an international security journalist and academic. He is the author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It, and the forthcoming science fiction thriller, ZERO POINT. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @nafeezahmed.